by Ramona Reeves
Stockard gouged another hole under a dry and worn out sky. The record fall heat, preceded by a scourge of rain, had prevented her from planting tulips in October. With mid-November approaching, she worried about them blooming late and struggling when summer came. The gardening books swore a person could plant tulips until Christmas, but books couldn’t feel the way the ground clenched into a fist after the first cold snap or sense the heat slowly closing its hands around the neck of an early morning. Only last June the blooms of her daylilies had shriveled into lifeless tassels of golden brown. Such was the price she might pay for letting good sense go by the wayside and planting the tulips anyway.
Across the street the Winsted’s yardman raked, piling the autumn dead onto swathes of St. Augustine. The sound of the rake reminded Stockard of a shirt being ripped and torn. For months she’d watched the yardman clang into the crescent driveway in his pockmarked and rusted truck, the passenger-side window duct-taped. Although he tended the yard more reliably than previous hires, his presence forced Stockard to wear not only sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat, but also a scarf in the noxious heat. She avoided gardening on the days when he appeared, but on this day, she’d favored her tulips and reminded herself that a well-groomed street, two giant oaks, and a row of waist-high azaleas stood between her and the Winsted’s lawn.
The rake ceased, and Stockard shifted her knees toward the street. When her husband Roy had nabbed her watching the man during the summer, he’d misunderstood and suggested they hire somebody for the yard, that hardly anyone did their own anymore. “Your blood pressure meds are affecting your thinking,” she told Roy. No one was touching her yard, not unless she was dead or knocked senseless.
For years she’d feared seeing the man again, his head now as hairless as an acorn. She had worried about confrontations in the shadows of parking lots, behind grocery stores, or during walks around her neighborhood at twilight, but when he reappeared across the street, she realized she had worried about the wrong thing. The world was a random place that didn’t give two red flips about her feelings. Live oaks still crowned downtown streets, and honeysuckle still curled along the fences of tamed and untamed yards alike. And so the yardman had appeared, and continued to appear, month after month for almost a year, ceaseless in his efforts.
With every appearance she was forced to recall their first meeting more than three decades ago. She had driven past him—a young man in his mid-thirties, black, travelling by foot—on her way to buy a bag of ice for a party she and Roy were hosting. She was 39. Trees shimmered, blue jays riffed, and the world robed itself in green. But then came the mangled face of the clerk, the bloodied cellophane, and the slack-jawed drawer of the cash register. Afterward she avoided hospitals, meat sections in supermarkets, and naturally, convenience stores. When the police questioned her, she told them what she thought to be true.
The yardman denied her accusations, said he was knocking on doors and looking for new customers in the well-to-do area. Tuckered out, he had decided to walk up the street and buy a cold drink, but her word against his was all it took. It was like that then. The man spent several years locked away until conscience got the better of someone who knew the real criminal, a tow-headed kid who’d robbed the store on a dare.
Stockard stopped digging and dabbed her neck with a damp cloth she took from a small ice chest. The yardman did not rest, but he walked between tasks as though the earth was sucking at his heels. Nothing distracted him. Not her, not the heat, not even the neighbor’s orange and white tabby bouncing across the Winsted’s freshly exhumed lawn. He’d apparently built up a tolerance for any kind of weather.
Stockard removed her hat and sunglasses. She closed her eyes and laid the icy cloth across her face. In this moment she could imagine a heaven replete with blue-tinted snow and icicles the size of elephants’ tusks. “It’s too hot for man or beast,” she heard Roy say. She returned her cloth to the ice chest. The yardman edged grass along the Winsted’s driveway and seemed to pay her and Roy no mind. How anyone could ignore Roy, looking as he did, like something birthed by the garage, was beyond her. A yellow cord draped one shoulder, a drill dangled from his belt, and a fronded contraption rose like a spear from his right hand. She knew she ought to tell Roy the man’s identity, but why bring it up after all these years? Eventually the man would leave—because all hired hands did—and the Winsteds would find someone else.
Roy plugged the yellow cord into a socket on the porch and attached the other end to his drill. “What have you gone and bought now?” she asked.
“This, my dear, is a bulb planter,” he said, jamming the spear-like contraption into the pointed barrel of the drill, tightening, and then squeezing the trigger. The silver fronds churned and shuttered in midair. “Just press one button and the tool does all the work. Try it,” he said.
That was Roy, buying a jackhammer when an ice pick would do. “Not now,” she said. “You’ve been watching too many commercials.”
“I know how you feel about these things, but this will make your life easier.”
She dropped another brown, stringy-rooted ball into a hole and smoothed it over with dirt. Roy squeezed the button again, causing a small jet to take off in Stockard’s chest. In seconds, next to her latest implant, was a perfect hole. “Snazzy, huh? Your friend over there might even give it a go,” Roy said.
A metallic odor persisted. “The hole’s too deep.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Roy said, but she could tell he only wanted her to try the ridiculous tool. She told him to leave it and said she’d try it later. She, of course, would do nothing of the kind. Roy squeezed her shoulder and set the contraption on the porch. “It’s too hot to be out here.” Stockard assured him she’d quit soon and go inside. Roy seemed satisfied with this answer and headed toward his Lexus in the driveway.
She was glad when he veered onto the street leading out of the subdivision. She considered banishing the bulb planter to the garage, or better yet, the attic, but if he returned before she finished planting and watering, she didn’t want him carrying on about how she never tried new things. She’d lie, say it was too hard to maneuver or made too much racket. Roy meant well enough, but gardening required the careful tending of a mother. So much was on the brink of dying if denied one’s constant care.
Stockard heard two loud thunks. The yardman knocked his boots against the pristine Doric columns of the Winsted’s house. Had he been anyone else, she’d have told Harriet Winsted about it, although every time she spoke to Harriet she got suckered into volunteering for a benefit or charity. As it was, Roy belonged to a Mardi Gras society and the Masons, and Stockard was president of the Azalea Trail Association. Every winter she oversaw the repainting of the pink stripe that traced its way along miles of Mobile’s azaleas. She thought of how wonderful it would be to rejuvenate herself by simply painting a stripe the length of her body.
The yardman had rejuvenation on his mind, too, she supposed. He lifted a spreader the size of a baby carriage from his truck. She generally approved of his lawn care, but anyone ought to know it was too late for fertilizing.
An hour before lunch, Stockard decided she’d suffered enough from the heat and went inside. The yardman rested only long enough to drink from a gallon jug of water. He ought to go home and come back the next morning or at least go somewhere and cool off. News of the record November heat had been on every television station for days. Surely he owned a TV.
Stockard busied herself with fixing Roy’s lunch. He’d probably gone to the grocery store. He always bought too much and wound up at the door holding bags enough to fill an RV. So when the doorbell chimed, she thought nothing of it and opened it wide, but it wasn’t Roy needing help.
The yardman’s sweaty shirt hung like the skin of a starving animal. “I hate to bother you,” he began, “but this heat’s about to do me in.” Stockard could see that he needed to come inside. The Winsteds hated the burning smell of gasoline and oil and were never at home when he worked. The man introduced himself as Gene and said, “I been admiring your yard for some time. You got a way with it.”
She didn’t introduce herself—he might remember her name—but thanked him for the compliment and told him to leave his shoes at the door. In another time she wished to forget, he might have gone around back, but after what she’d done, he’d more than earned his place.
“Terribly kind,” the man said. He stooped and untied his grimy laces.
“It’s too hot for this time of year, don’t you think?” she said. “It should be getting cooler already.” She kept the door open and searched for Roy’s car along the street before allowing the yardman to cross the threshold in his socks, which, she noted, bore designer logos. Perhaps the time in prison hadn’t cost him as much as she’d imagined. She smiled lips together to avoid being overly friendly because he was still a stranger, and she was alone.
When his eyes traced the living room, she thought he must be sizing up the place. He had no way of knowing she’d recently replaced the beige carpet with cherry hardwoods, the heavy scarlet drapes with white shutters to match the crown molding. But anyone could see by the cleaner colors and sheen of the floor that she had updated.
“Go into the kitchen and have a seat, won’t you,” she said. She led the way and turned her face away from his, worried that he might recognize her and become crazy or violent, but when she caught her reflection in the stainless refrigerator, she remembered that her bright eyes had succumbed to a gray shale, her summer locks to winter. She relaxed a little, and focused on making lemonade. The man wheezed and coughed while she measured powder and added water, then not a second after she poured him a glass, he slurped it down. She poured herself a glass, too, and allowed the sweet coolness of each sip to linger on her tongue and calm the worry in her brain.
“The powder is almost as good as the real stuff,” the man said.
The glass felt cold and soothing against the stiff joints in her hands. “When the real kind isn’t an option, it’ll do,” she agreed.
“Ain’t that the truth about so many things.” The man sat up taller and stared at her. “Something about you sure is familiar.”
Stockard turned her back to the man and placed her glass in the kitchen sink. “You’ve probably seen me in the paper with the Azalea Trail Association. I work with them a lot,” she said. Overheated or not, the man needed to leave, and she was thinking of ways to expel him.
The doorbell rang. This time it was her husband. Seeing him lifted the heaviness in her chest. “What’s for lunch?” he said and then, “Oh, I didn’t know we had company.” He entered the kitchen and dropped a pile of plastic bags onto the granite countertop, then turned to shake the yardman’s hand.
“You’re welcome to stay for lunch,” Roy said, but mercifully, the man wouldn’t hear of it. He and Roy walked toward the door commenting on the weather. It was all anyone could talk about.
“Come on back if you need to,” Roy told him, but Stockard hoped the man would do no such thing. Bad luck was one thing, but tempting it to come sit on your lap was just plain dumb.
After the man departed, Roy made his way to the chair where the yardman had sat. “I don’t know how he can stand it out there. Anyway, I’m starved to death.”
Stockard took her queue and served him tuna on a bed of lettuce and made herself a sandwich. “A little bread wouldn’t hurt me,” Roy said. “Nobody even heard of wheat allergies 10 years ago.”
“Do you think Gene looked familiar?” she asked.
“I ate bread my whole durn life,” Roy went on, stabbing the tuna with his fork. He chewed, swallowed and quickly drank his iced tea. “If that doesn’t taste sorry without bread then I don’t know what.”
“Did you hear me?” she said.
He jabbed his fork into the tuna. “The man seemed nice enough to me.”
“But didn’t he seem familiar?”
Roy took another bite and swallowed. “Not particularly.”
She wanted him to guess but knew he never would. “He’s the man from the robbery.”
Roy laid his fork aside. “Are you sure?” When she didn’t respond, he said, “It was a long time ago, Hun. You never meant your word as gospel. The police just took it that way.” He squeezed one of her hands and retrieved his fork. After another bite, he added, “You know, this is pretty tolerable without bread. You take good care of me. That other business was just bad luck.”
That afternoon she washed dishes and folded laundry still thinking those same old thoughts, how she’d likely ruined a man’s life for a time, but what could anyone do about the past? She recalled his designer socks. He’d recovered. He’d done okay for himself.
When she finished her chores, she cracked open the living room blinds and watched the man work. He drank water and wiped his forehead. Perhaps impatient to retire for the day, the old man—yes, that’s what he was now—wrestled with a power cord near a half-trimmed crepe myrtle.
“Aw, Hun, you got to let it be,” Roy said.
She hated when he snuck up on her like that. How could he say such a thing? “We should buy him something for Christmas. Or maybe he’d like that bulb planter,” she said. Somehow it seemed unfair, the yardman struggling outside and her retired and living comfortably and doing as she pleased.
“That planter was for you,” Roy said as he snapped the blinds closed. “What’s done is done.”
She nodded, but when Roy took his afternoon nap, she put on her sunglasses and a floral scarf and ventured onto the porch where the bulb planter lay. The fact that she had no use for it didn’t make it a bad gift. Anyone could see it was new, and men liked such things. It might even make Gene’s life a bit easier. Let Roy pitch a fit if he wanted.
Once outside, she picked up the gadget, cradled it under one arm, and set out on her mission. The smooth metal of the planter felt warm in her right hand as she crossed the street. In the stubborn and blistering air Stockard could feel beads of sweat rising on her forehead. She slowed her pace and thought about how life often moved too fast and went nowhere at the same time.
When she stepped into the Winsteds’ yard, she didn’t see the yardman but followed a long power cord to a row of boxwoods that partially concealed the curved driveway near the entrance to their home. The yardman had collapsed behind the shrubs. She released the bulb planter and ran to his side, then flung off her sunglasses and loosened her scarf to place an ear on his chest. Hearing nothing, she thought hard about the CPR she’d learned years ago when her children were young. She pried open the man’s mouth with one hand and cradled his head with the other. For the first time in her married life her lips met those of another man. Still warm, they were shriveled and tasted of acidic tomatoes past their prime. She inhaled and exhaled, pleading with him to breathe, but she may as well have fanned a brick wall. Light-headed and dizzy, she felt sweat blossoming the length of her body. When she heard a car along the street, she stood and flagged down the driver, who called for help.
By the time the paramedics arrived, Roy and a dozen others had gathered on the Winsteds’ revived lawn. Stockard thought she might collapse too. “Sugar,” Roy said, “he’s not responding.” He placed his hands beneath her arms and slowly pulled her to her feet. Noting the bruised look of Gene’s face, she allowed this gesture. The two paramedics took over, undid his shirt. They shocked his body and counted. They repeated these steps, everyone hoping for a Lazarus.
“It’s my fault,” she told her neighbors, but they only patted her shoulder and said she’d done all anyone could do.
The paramedics stopped. “He’s too far gone,” one said.
Roy led her across the street. “It’s my fault,” she said. She’d known the man wasn’t well. It wasn’t like him to take advantage or ask anything of the Winsteds’ neighbors. At least that’s how he’d seemed.
“I know how you feel about it, but under the circumstances, maybe we should get somebody for the yard,” Roy said.
She turned to watch the body being lifted onto a stretcher and hauled away like a felled tree. Every time she looked across the street she’d be thinking about Gene. “Maybe so,” she said.
The Winsteds’ hybrid sedan appeared on the street and turned into their driveway. Harriet Winsted got out of the car and ran, holding her hair in place, toward the ambulance. She almost tripped on the bulb planter. A neighbor man caught her and soon threw the gadget into the bed of Gene’s truck. Both the tool and the truck would end up in the dump.
Several approaching clouds ushered in a light breeze that twisted autumn leaves in Stockard’s path, but the clouds and the breeze were too late to provide anyone respite from the mean heat. “He didn’t deserve it,” she said.
Roy opened their front door and led her to the kitchen. “Some people,” he said, “are just unlucky.”